Books on Russia
Generally, nothing much happens in the
second half of December in the Christian
world for obvious reasons. One can even
extend this generalisation to the Islamic
world too, because Jesus is a great
prophet for the Moslems, as is Moses. The
precepts of both loom large in Islamic
Something major did happen in this fallow
period eighteen years ago for all that.
Yeltsin wound up the USSR. He obviously
felt that the end of the year was an
appropriate time to see off all things
Soviet, at least formally so. Gorbachev
handed over the control over the Soviet
nuclear arsenal to the Russian president
on December 31, 1991.
What is the significance of this mighty
event two decades later? Clearly, it has
led to the creation of a new, non-bipolar
world. The Cold War was definitively over.
Russia was resurgent, which had been
eclipsed in the USSR, the one republic
without presidential representation at the
union level. But it was reborn as a
geopolitical entity in a multi-polar
world, in which China and a burgeoning
European Union, as yet still unspecified,
counted as well as the US.
How is Russia to fit in to this new world
order in the making?
Nobody has quite got the answer yet. One
thing that the Russians knew for sure is
what they did not want to be the case any
more: they did not want to continue to be
the foil of the Western world and of NATO.
Yet so long as they possess a huge nuclear
arsenal, it is logical that the Europeans
and Americans will persist in seeing the
Russians as the ultimate adversary.
President Dmitry Medvedev has proposed a
new security charter and union to replace
NATO. Unfortunately he has not specified
what its logic and raison d'etre should
be. Targeting terrorism is inadequate. It
is too generic and unspecific an enemy for
such a heterogeneous set of players as the
various post-Cold War survivors.
Is it to be the Islamic world as a whole?
Obviously a bad idea. So whom?
Ourselves - armed to the teeth with
horrifically-powered weaponry is one
plausible answer. But it will need a
statesman to convince us of that. Where is
he to be found?
Rampant nostalgia in Russia
In the interim people resort to the past
and its desired phantoms. Prime Minister
Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, has
described the fall of the Soviet Union as
the "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe
of the century."
Kremlin critics have accused the
authorities of a creeping rehabilitation
of the Soviet Union to justify their
clampdowns on the media and opposition
parties. "There is an idealisation of the
Soviet past," said Nikita Petrov, an
historian from the Memorial human rights
group. "It's a conscious policy. They are
trying to show the Soviet authorities
looking decent and attractive to today's
generation." In Russia, several
Soviet-themed restaurants have opened in
Moscow in recent years: some hold
nostalgia nights where young people dress
up as pioneers -- the Soviet answer to the
boy scouts and girl guides -- and dance to
Soviet Champagne and Red October
Chocolates remain favourites for birthday
celebrations. "USSR" T-shirts and baseball
caps can be seen across the country in
The new modus vivendi?
The Hotel Moscow, an icon of Soviet
architecture, is today a monument to
another pervasive aspect of Russian
reality: crony capitalism. Seven years
ago, the city government decided to
demolish and rebuild the towering,
thousand-room structure just off Red
Square, and awarded the contract to a
But the deal was annulled under murky
circumstances, investigators say, in
favour of business interests well
connected to officialdom and organized
crime. Financial irregularities have since
delayed the project's completion.
The fate of the hotel is emblematic of
Russia's troubling business culture. A
string of similar high-profile cases in
which bureaucrats, police and justice
officials are suspected of using their
authority to pressure or swindle foreign
companies has caused an increasing number
of investors to pull out, with potentially
dire consequences for a flagging economy.
Foreign investment in 2009 was down 22.9
percent compared with 2008, according to
the Novaye Izvestiya newspaper. In the
second half of 2008 alone, an estimated $7
billion in foreign capital exited Russia.
Russia also was ranked 146th out of 180
countries in Transparency International's
annual survey for 2009, which measures
corruption in government and business - a
drop of nearly 30 places since 2002.
The watchdog group estimated that bribery
costs Russia $300 billion a year, or about
18 percent of its gross domestic product.
"With the current level and volume of
corruption ... we cannot move forward,"
Transparency International said in a
statement in December. "If corruption
stays as it is now, it will continue to
eat up the resources" that Russia could
invest in its future.
President Dmitry Medvedev has acknowledged
the problem, lamenting the "legal
nihilism" that has rotted the system. In a
major speech, he said corruption needed to
be tackled from many directions but that a
solution would take time: "We won't solve
the problem in a single bound, but we have
to dig in."
President Putin recidivist?
Vladimir Putin has given his clearest hint
yet that he is preparing to get back his
old job as president during a masterful
performance at his annual question and
answer session with the Russian public.
Putin, currently prime minister, spent
more than four hours answering carefully
screened questions from across Russia on
subjects including the Lada car and
whether the Iranians have built a nuclear
bomb yet. Asked by a mining student
whether he wanted to be president again,
Putin replied: "I will think about it,"
adding "There's still plenty of time."
Ever since he made way for Dmitry Medvedev
to take over the presidency in 2008 after
eight years in office, there has been
speculation that he is planning to return
at the next presidential election in 2012.
In December Putin did nothing to dispel
the impression that he is Russia's most
accomplished and popular politician and
that it is he who actually runs the
country. Most of his questioners
apparently agreed. They reverentially
addressed the prime minister as "Vladimir
Putin's eighth annual phone-in was
screened live on Russian TV and entitled A
Conversation with Vladimir Putin: The
Sequel. The event is an opportunity for
Putin to demonstrate his stamina, charm
and mastery of local detail. Hostile
questions are weeded out with
pre-selected factory workers and studio
guests "spontaneously" picked instead.
Putin said the threat of terrorism in
Russia remained extremely high after 26
people were killed in early December when
their luxury express travelling between
Moscow and St Petersburg was apparently
blown up. He promised to "break the spine"
of the criminals responsible.
He signalled that the peak of Russia's
economic crisis had passed, though he
acknowledged the country still faced
economic challenges, particularly in
single industry Soviet-era towns. He
addressed other voter-friendly concerns
such as pensions, hospitals, and the
future of Russia's struggling car and
The prime minister fielded inquiries on
more light-hearted subjects. They included
Russia's failure to qualify for the World
Cup next year in South Africa, break
dancing and rappers. Putin said Russian
rappers were more responsible than western
ones. Asked whether he liked animals, he
talked keenly about Russia's tigers and
leopards, and the uncertain fate of the
country's Arctic polar bears.
Putin also waded into the debate on Stalin
the subject of a row this year between
Russia and its eastern European partners.
The Stalin era saw Soviet Russia's
transformation from an agrarian to an
industrial state, he said, as well as its
victory in the Second World War. "If the
war had been lost the consequences would
have been catastrophic," he reminded his
But he added: "All these positive things
were achieved at an unacceptable price.
Repression was real. Millions suffered
from repressions. We can't forget the cult
of personality or the crimes against
Russia's own people. The era must be
analysed in its complexity."
Putin made a few polite references to
Medvedev pointing out they had shared
the same teacher at the same university in
St Petersburg, who had imbued them with
common values. Medvedev has recently
criticised the state of Russia in a series
of gloomy speeches. An upbeat Putin, by
contrast, implied that all is well. He
offered practical help to the country's
citizens, promising new school computers
to one caller.
Putin was reticent about foreign policy,
formally Medvedev's brief. But he said
Russia had no evidence that Iran was
trying to build a nuclear weapon and
declined to say whether Moscow would back
sanctions. He praised the former US
president George Bush as a "decent and
good guy" and said he would be happy to
meet him again.
He said he wanted warm relations with
Ukraine and blamed Ukraine's pro-western
president, Viktor Yushchenko, for the
uncomfortable stand-off between Moscow and
Only one subject roused Putin to anger:
Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The oligarch was
arrested in 2003 and jailed for eight
years in a case most observers believe was
politically motivated: Khodorkovsky had
challenged Putin by funding opposition
political parties. The former billionaire
is currently on trial facing fresh charges
that could bring 22 more years in prison.
Asked whether Khodorkovsky should be
freed, Putin replied: "It isn't a question
of whether he should be released but how
to prevent crimes of this kind in future."
Putin said economic criminals should be
dealt with in accordance with Russian law.
In reality, however, this is little
guarantee of justice as Russia's judges do
what they are told by the Kremlin.
Putin confirmed the widespread view that
his era has a long time to run possibly
until 2024, by when he would have served
two more presidential terms. Asked by
Leonard from Krasnodar whether he planned
to spend more time with his family, Putin
broke into a twinkling half-smile. He
said: "Don't hold your breath."
Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, the
founder and director of Moscow's National
Strategy Institute, said it remained
unclear whether Putin would return as
president. "The question of who will be
the next president won't be decided until
early 2011. It won't be decided by Putin,
or by Putin and Medvedev, but by Russia's
political elite. At the moment the elite
wants Medvedev because Medvedev allows
them to keep their assets in the west
and is associated with the reset in
relations with the US and other
geo-political partners. Ultimately the
elite decides, not Putin.
Well, we shall see.